LEARNING TO LOVE THE SILENCE
David C. Hughes
This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it.”
I have this really weird relationship with silence. On the one hand, I’ve got to work in absolute quietness. No music, no television, no background noise. Nothing but blessed silence and holy stillness. I’ve always been amazed by people who can sit in front of a computer or read a book while plugged into a rockin’ MP3 player. When I try to write or read and listen to music at the same time, I end up paying attention to the lyrics and defocusing from the project at hand. If I recognize an instrumental piece without lyrics, I start filling in the words, then I usually wind up with the song stuck in my head for the rest of the day. Or week . . . .
I’m like Dug and Alpha in the movie “Up”: any distraction scampering into the room while I’m working instantly transforms into a squirrel. So to keep distractions at bay, I escape to my office, close the door, light a candle, and focus. Sometimes I even close the blinds to shut out the sunshine while I’m trying to slog my way through a particularly challenging chapter, or pushing to complete an essay with some semblance of inspiration and coherency. As Amena Brown wrote in her book Breaking Old Rhythms, “To write is to listen. As a writer, I sometimes think that to write is to talk, to relieve myself of my incessant need to communicate, but my writing is much better when I’m listening.” (Amena Brown, Breaking Old Rhythms, “Chapter 7: Breathing Room,” page 97). And I listen best when I’m focused, concentrating, and distraction-free.
On the other hand, I can’t stand the silence in a conversation. When I’m talking with someone, whether it be one-on-one or in a group setting, I have a tendency to stuff dead air with anything that pops into my head. Over the years I’ve developed quite a talent for improvising filler for conversational interludes, but when my mouth is running and my ears are stuck in idle, and the entire experience suffers. The result is a lot of me and not much of you, and consequently I learn very little, if nothing. James, the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem at the beginning of the early church, wrote in his epistle, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). I should listen.
My wife, Mary, can relate to James’ instruction, and I’m sure she sometimes wishes I’d put into action what I read in the Good Book more often. “Why aren’t you listening to me?!” she shouts in frustration when our six-year-old daughter, Hannah, just looks at her funny after Mary tells her what to do. Or when I stare at her with a slack look that says “I haven’t heard a word you said” after she asks me a question about a conversation we had earlier in the day. Listening is not only essential for the effective exchange of information and experience, but it also conveys respect and love for the person you’re talking with. “We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we may hear more and speak less,” wrote Diogenes Laertius, biographer of Greek philosophers. And M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, is quoted as saying “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” And that includes listening to God.
Between distractions in quietness and running at the mouth during conversations, I end up missing out on God’s voice. I haven’t yet learned to love the silence. “What I learned from my grandma,” wrote Amena Brown in Breaking Old Rhythms, “what she taught me about God, is how much he treasures the interlude–those brief moments in time when we sit still and quiet ourselves to listen. Truly coming to know God, to hear his voice, is about bringing our souls to silence, bringing our hearts to a place where they can be alone and quiet with him.” (Amena Brown, Breaking Old Rhythms, “Chapter 7: Breathing Room,” pages 90 and 91).
During a recent trip to the dentist, while my hygienist, Sonja Owens, scraped plaque from my teeth, the subject of our children came up. She has five, ranging in age from 24 down to 5. As Sonja chatted and I grunted and replied after each suctioning, she told me the story about how her five-year-old daughter wouldn’t stop talking to her after she got home from work one night. All Sonja wanted to do was relax and unwind, and all her daughter wanted to do was talk. “Was she like this all day?” she queried her older daughter.
“No,” her 18-year-old replied. “She just started when you walked through the door.”
So for the rest of the evening Sonja went about her business as her five-year-old chattered incessantly until bedtime. “And I realized that’s how God must think of us when we pray sometimes,” Sonja concluded. “We talk, talk, talk and never listen.” He desires our interludes with Him, the quieting of our mouth and our thoughts to enter into meaningful conversation with Him, not just talk at Him–what good does that do? What He says is true, what He tells us is for our own benefit, if only we’d listen. And not only listen, obey. As Solomon said of Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs,
But since you refuse to listen when I call
and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand,
since you disregard all my advice
and do not accept my rebuke,
I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you.
God speaks to us constantly. Whether it comes in a whisper, a thought, an action, an impression, a Scripture reading, or through someone else’s words, God continuously converses with us. When we allow our minds to wander during work or prayer, and when we permit our thoughts to crank up the engine of worry, the exhaust from our churning minds suffocates God’s breath.
This world offers a multitude of distractions, and the enemy is adept at using these tools to his advantage. I see it in Hannah: when she zones in front of the television, you can wave a hand in front of her eyes and get no reaction. Then when we “unplug” her, she gets angry and whiny. You see it when a child is forced to turn off and put away their Leapster or Game Boy: the blank stare transforms into attitude and the total absorption turns into shortness. You notice it when the young lady wearing pink M&M ear buds runs right into you on in the mall, then doesn’t even apologize, let alone acknowledge your presence. God is speaking, but no one’s listening. “Why aren’t you listening to me?!” Is it any wonder so many people wander around with no idea of where they’re going, and even who they are? We put God on hold when we plugged in our iPhones; we disconnected Him when we flipped on our Xbox. As Amena Brown said, to hear His voice, we need to bring our souls to silence.
Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes